In Conversation is a Media Speaks! summer blog series where we chat with fascinating folks in the field of technology, media, and education. For our current feature, we’re highlighting women of color mediamakers, techies, content producers, and programmers.
Photo courtesy of Moya Bailey
Part II of my conversation with Moya Bailey continues below. (See Part I for Moya's thoughts on Black feminism online and labels).
Tara: Speaking of labels and identity, I want to bring in Donna Haraway for a moment and talk about the cyborg. You’ve written about cyborg consciousness/theory in your latest piece, “Vampires and Cyborgs: Transhuman ability and ableism in the work of Octavia Butler and Janelle Monae”. I recently spoke with a Twitter friend about the concept of cyborg as it relates to race and gender. He argued that people of color have always been cyborgs; that is, we’ve always been an amalgamation of identities, experiences, and so on. How do you understand cyborg, and what do you mean by transhuman? Are the concepts of cyborg and transhuman something that marginalized groups should embrace, particularly in this technological moment?
Moya: I would agree with your friend. I think that there is a long of history of people of color relating to that idea of cyborg. I’d say cyborg and double consciousness, all of those things feel really connected to me. How we understand ourselves through the lens of our oppressor versus how we simply see ourselves is one dichotomy that I think cyborg consciousness operates on. Similarly, how we relate to the dualism of mind/body, man/machine, all of that is pretty central, and very much a part of how people of color have interacted in this world, in this time, and in this historical context. I think all of that is super important.
Tara: Do you think as academics we should try to push cyborg and transhuman terminology into the mainstream? Do you think that these terms should be adopted more in our colloquialisms or in popular culture, or do you think these are just academic terms that is probably best left for theory?
Moya: Well, I think people are using these ideas in different ways. On a related note, I’m helping to put together this conference in the spring on the concept of ‘Alien Bodies’: Race and Sex in the African Diaspora’. The idea is that the Black figure in Diaspora space is considered alien. We’re marked as foreign, particularly in what people imagine about the United States. There’s an understanding that white people are the norm, and other people of color are somehow interlopers. So the idea of cyborg comes out in other places. One of the places that we see it come out in is in music. Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne, Andre 3000, and lots of other artists have talked about this alien concept and not feeling fulling human. There’s this long history of Afro-futurism both in music and in artistic work. I think it comes up in places aside from academia. Though it might not be called the cyborg, I still think it shows up.
Kanye West. Photo by Tara L. Conley ©2008
Tara: Digital Humanities is an important area of study that I think is now starting to really catch on. That said, there are still some battles that folks have to confront when we talk about critical theory, gender, race, class, ability as they relate to technology. You recently published a piece for the Journal of Digital Humanities entitled, “All the Digital Humanists are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave”, in which you discuss some of the problems within this field of study, namely that Digital Humanities has been “largely overlooked”. You reference some notable scholars in the field like Lisa Nakamura. You also shout out some organizations that are engaging children of color in the sciences and tech fields, like Black Girls Code. Yet, it’s still an uphill battle to get the work out there in a largely homogeneous, heteronormative, patriarchal, ‘white’, and institutionalize space like academia. How do you see Digital Humanities within the larger, more structured, institutionalized, specialized space of academia?
Moya: My relationship to Digital Humanities is organic and strategic. It’s something that I feel like I’ve already been doing, I just haven’t been calling it Digital Humanities. The organizing and the way that my Women’s Studies scholarship has had digital outgrowth online has always been from Digital Humanities. I just haven’t had that language to name it until recently. And I think that’s true for a lot of marginalized scholars. I mean, part of the reason why we’re attracted to digital works is because it means we can reach beyond the academy. There’s a public intellectual component to our digital humanities work that I think is super important, and it’s also part of why it’s obscured. My interests is having more people claim the label of Digital Humanities for the work that they’re already doing. People are already creating awesome and innovative projects. They just haven’t called their work ‘Digital Humanities work’, but it totally is.
Tara: I’m currently working on my doctorate in Computing, Communication, and Technology in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. As a MA in Women’s Studies, I’m hell bent on ensuring that my current work in technology and communications infuses feminist and queer theories and perspectives. Some might say that I am on a mission! That said, I understand that the disciplinary field I’m working in is not necessarily as hell bent on focusing on gender or race issues as I am. I’m not a Women’s Studies graduate student anymore, and I honestly miss it sometimes. Being that you are a doctoral student in the field of Gender and Women’s Studies, what advice would you give to other graduate students and scholars who are not in your field but who want to deliberately, yet strategically, incorporate gender, race, dis/ability issues in their own work; however, knowing that there will likely be push back from their respective departments and/or the academy at large?
Moya: I mean, what’s interesting is that, yes, being on the inside of Women’s Studies has a different feeling to it. However, our department and the way people talk about Women’s Studies at large isn’t as welcoming as people might think. On the inside, we actually talk about how people with disciplinary backgrounds have an advantage over us because they’re bringing in specialized elements to their work. Though gender, race, and sexuality issues are not something that is at the forefront of so-called traditional disciplines, it’s like an added bonus to include those issues into the scope of traditional disciplines. Whereas if you come out of Women’s Studies, it seems as though people want to say to us, 'Well, that’s all you can do.' People might think twice about hiring a Women’s Studies PhD over a traditional disciplinary scholar. So that’s one thing.
One the other hand, I would also say that part of the work you’re doing is about creating connections with people in other places. So in the same way that you’re bringing in race, sexuality, gender, and ableism to the conversation, you can also engage other graduate students with whom you share an affinity and who are doing similar work as yourself. I’d say keep reaching beyond your department to see where those intersection are because honestly, I think the people who are doing the most innovative things are making those connections. That’s definitely where people are moving to because you have to make those connections nowadays.
Tara: Right! I think the idea of moving toward more--or rather accepting a movement towards more hybrid knowledges as a sort of normalize way of knowing about the worlds around us is entirely necessary right now.
Moya: Yeah, and I think that’s why Digital Humanities is a good model. That is, it isn’t necessarily compartmentalized. You have academics with disciplinary training, you have computer programmers, you have librarians, and so on. You have people from different sectors who are all bringing their knowledge to the table on a particular issue or a particular project. This means that each person has to know what they need to know, but at the same time, you’re creating something together. It’s the collaborative spirit of Digital Humanities that is something we should really embrace and try to bring to other parts of the university.
Tara: So what’s next for you?
Moya: I want a job! I’ve been a graduate student for a long time! I would like a job in the south helping to do digital projects that help reach beyond the academy and focus on real-life problems that people are having in the world--particularly southern folks of color and queer folks. I really want to see academic institutions that are located in the south to take on more of their locations. I want to bridge some of the gaps between folks in the academy and folks who are not in the academy.
Tara: Incidentally, what part of the south are you from?
Moya: I’m originally from Arkansas. Tara: Is one of the reasons why you want to go back to the south because you’re from there, or is there a political method behind your madness, in that, you necessarily want to conduct academic work in the south?
Moya: Yes, definitely both. I’m a southern girl through and through. There’s a lot of potential in the south for creating something new and different. Just in thinking about the space of the south; it’s more open than the northeast and there’s a lot of potential energy that hasn’t been utilized and I want to be part of whatever is growing in the south.
Tara: That sounds wonderful. I look forward to seeing what’s next. I’ll be right behind you cheering you on!
Many thanks to Moya for taking the time to chat with Media Speaks!